Category Archives: music

A new musical experience

Today I participated in a day of singing Georgian Christmas music from the North of England, in a workshop of the West Gallery Music Association. Mostly from the 18th and 19th Centuries, the pieces we did today were all unfamiliar to me, and with one exception I liked them very much. Interestingly, I liked the earliest and latest ones best. But neither of those is actually Georgian, the earliest being at least as old as 1611 and the latest having been composed by one of our singers (who is also the organist at Newcastle Unitarian Church and is how I learned of this workshop).

I found it strangely (or maybe not so strangely) moving and inspiring to sing music in Northumberland that was, in part, from old Northumberland. It wasn’t ancient enough to predate the history of European America, and it’s possible I’ve sung American music that’s as old as almost all of these, but it was old and rich nonetheless. I will do this again, given half a chance.

I also couldn’t help thinking that the first of November is awfully early to be having Christmas music events. But the UK has no Thanksgiving to start off the festivities.


There’s nothing* I’d rather spend Sunday doing…

…than singing early music in Italy with a bunch of congenial people of similar ability (i.e., not perfect and not crap). Most of the early-music choirs I’ve sung with have been full of people whose main concern was to sing the pieces well, and everyone felt free to give and receive comments and tips on what they were doing that wasn’t quite right (rhythm or note or whatever). There have been a few exceptions, but for the most part I’ve found that the people who come together to sing this music are just interested in the joy we get from singing this glorious music with a group of like-minded people.

I can also say that there’s no way I could have done this workshop (or the Tallis Scholars Summer School, either) seven years ago when I began singing early music. I’m sight-reading relatively well these days (although admittedly these groups don’t sing anything as rhythmically difficult as Dunstable or Parsons or, god forbid, Fawkyner, all of which Collegium Cantorum did while I was with them). Although my use of music technology to learn CC pieces gave me the spiritual experience that motivated my PhD topic (and without which I wouldn’t be living in the UK or studying at Northumbria), I have to confess that I’m just as glad to be less dependent on it nowadays.

*Well, almost nothing… ;-)

Coming up on two years

I’m taking a bit of a break from Newcastle and the intense PhD work, having submitted my Second Annual Review (AR-2) materials for review and comment by my panel. I hope to have the review meeting in early October, so that I can make any changes they require and re-enroll (sorry, UK friends, this is my blog, not my thesis, and I refuse to spell “enroll” with one “l” :-) for my third year before my anniversary date of 19 October. My supervisor said he thinks it will be mostly a formality, as (he says) I’m ahead of most PhD students at this point.

Problem is, I don’t feel ahead! There’s so much I wanted to do that I haven’t gotten done. But I have done a fair amount of other stuff along the way, and I guess he feels that’s enough to put me on track for where I should be at this point. He did say that I have an amazing publication record for a PhD student. (With respect to that, however, I have been around the HCI academic community for many years, and I have some idea of what should go into a research paper.)

I’m taking a week off for a singing workshop in a small hill town in Liguria, Italy, about 40 minutes’ drive north of Arma di Taggia and very close to the French border. It’s a beautiful little town, and I’m staying in a tower room that is up one flight along a spiral staircase. Wonderful people, great cameraderie — and I know it will be a week’s worth of fabulously satisfying singing.

Then on to Torino, Bologna, and Rome, with probably a side trip to Milan during my stay in Torino. I have a seminar to prepare for Bologna (my friend Fabio is a professor there) and I’m thinking about how I might speak to a group of computer science students about awe and wonder and how technology might support them. Hmmm…

Good thing Bologna isn’t next after Triora! :-)

A bit of catching up on the blog…

…after an overlong gap…

I haven’t written a blog post here in more than three months. Zowie. I can’t say I’ve been any busier than usual, so I really don’t have any excuse. But a lot has happened since my last post. Here are the highlights.

CHI 2014

At the CHI 2014 conference (Toronto, late April – early May) I participated in the Doctoral Consortium, two days of discussion with 13 other PhD students (there were supposed to be 15 of us in total but one couldn’t make it) and six “faculty” members who gave us feedback and other useful information. Most of the presentations were excellent, I thought, and I got some very useful and valuable feedback on mine. Each student had a principal “discussant”, who began the conversation after the student’s 20-minute presentation/summary; after the discussant’s comments the other faculty members gave their feedback, and sometimes other students asked questions or offered comments as well. Each of us took notes for one of the other students. My discussant was Bill Buxton, and his first comment just delighted me: “I had all sorts of questions from reading your submission, but in your presentation you answered them all.” He did go on to make some suggestions for things I might consider, as did the other faculty members. More than one of them sent me emails with suggested readings.

Then there was the rest of CHI. Other than hearing interesting talks and seeing people I care about and don’t get to see elsewhere, the best part was meeting, quite by accident, Nathan Matias of the MIT Media Lab, who is interested in digital pilgrimage (a type of techno-spirituality, no?) and who expressed interest in collaborating with me on such a project. We have yet to set up a time to have a more in-depth conversation about it, but I am confident that the mutual interest is there.

Here’s my PowerPoint presentation to the doctoral consortium. I’ll upload my submission later.

Visit to USA

After CHI, since I was already on the west side of the Pond, I took myself down to the States to visit family (North Carolina) and friends (Maryland, mostly, but also other parts of the DC area). This time I stayed in an AirBnB room — I didn’t want to burden people I’d stayed with before, and almost everyone else I know well enough to ask for hospitality has cats (to which I am, sadly, allergic). I met with my accountant and got my 2013 taxes straightened out. I had dinner(s) with some close friends. I went to CSC Headquarters to talk about how I might fit into the reorganized group to which I have been assigned. And I conducted interviews for my PhD research. I came back to the UK with eleven new recordings and some really good data. (I am still transcribing them.)

Northumbria Research Conference

In late May I gave a shorter version of last year’s DPPI talk, “Meditations on YouTube” at the two-day Northumbria Research Conference. At this venue the technology wouldn’t cooperate and so I couldn’t play clips of the videos, but I think it went OK.

Scottish Unitarian Association

I had been invited to lead the service at the end of the Scottish Unitarian Association’s annual general assembly (I think that’s what they call it), so I drew on what I’ve been learning about awe and wonder in my reading of literature on spiritual/numinous/transcendent/peak experiences and made it about awe and wonder. People said they liked it and it gave them something to think about, so I’m happy. (I will be giving a slightly longer version to the Newcastle Unitarians in October.)

I took an extra couple of days and explored Dundee, where the meeting was held. I stayed with a member of the Dundee congregation, and I feel I’ve made a new friend. She told me I have “a very Scottish face” — a wonderful compliment to receive from a native. (I have noticed that Scots tend to treat me as a native [until I open my mouth, of course :-)], but it’s nice to hear it expressed outright. Now, if Scotland would just go independent and relax their immigration policies to include anyone who can prove Scottish ancestry within the last 300 years… (I do have a Gaelic surname, after all!)

NordiCHI paper accepted

Just before CHI, my supervisor and I had submitted a paper to the NordiCHI 2014 conference*, to be held in Helsinki, Finland, in late October. About the end of June, we received word that it had been accepted! Mark is first author on this paper and we don’t know who will be going there to present it, but I do hope it’s me. (He agrees, but it’s not entirely up to the two of us, so we’ll see. Stay tuned and keep your fingers crossed!) The paper is called “Chatbots of the Gods: Imaginary Abstracts for Techno-Spirituality Research” (Mark is truly a genius at writing titles), and it combines our work on imaginary abstracts (a type of design fiction) and techno-spirituality with the treatment of spirituality and religion in science fiction. Here’s the abstract:

This paper reflects on the intersection of human-computer interaction (HCI) with techno-spirituality and science fiction (SF). We consider science fiction treatments of spirituality, religion and “the numinous” — a mysterious presence that evokes fascination, awe and sometimes dread — as stimulus for exploring techno-spiritual design through “imaginary abstracts”, a form of design fiction. We present an imaginary abstract — a summary of a paper that has not been written about a prototype that does not exist — to explore possible user reactions to an artificial intelligence system that provides spiritual advice drawn from diverse sacred texts as relevant to the user’s question. We argue that SF is a valuable resource for creating design fiction and may help HCI build a vocabulary for techno-spiritual experiences.

We got some excellent feedback from our three reviewers (I totally adore informed, thoughtful reviewers!) and are now preparing the camera-ready version, which is due next Monday. I’ll post a link to that when I am allowed to provide the publication version (with ACM copyright notice and all).

Tallis Scholars Summer School 2014

Earlier this month I spent a week in the East Midlands of England, in a picturesque and charming town called Uppingham, to spend a week singing the music of (mostly) Thomas Tallis and Willliam Byrd, composers of the middle and late 1500s. This was my second year there, and as I had last year I enjoyed it greatly. On the Friday, the last evening of our week there, we went to Lincoln to sing evensong at Lincoln Minster Cathedral, where Byrd had served as organist for several years. Here are my photos of the cathedral.

*I make no apologies for NordiCHI 2014’s illegible logo.

Divided by a common… hymnal

Last night Cappella did an Advent concert that included carols to two tunes I’d never heard before. One of them had words I’ve sung to a different tune; the other carol was completely new to me. The one with familiar words was Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus; here are the tune we sang and the tune I know. The one I had never heard before was Hills of the North, Rejoice.

All of the choir knew these hymns, and so did the audience. Other singers were amazed that I had never heard them before.

I’ve posted before about having to learn songs that are familiar to everyone else. What I have not previously mentioned is that this regularly happens in the Unitarian church here as well. The two hymnals I’ve seen have a number of hymns whose words are the same as the ones I know (both from my UU experience and my Methodist upbringing), but whose tunes I don’t.

This keeps happening. We frequently hear that the US and Britain are two nations “divided by a common language”, but I say that we are also divided by a common hymnal.

Surprising musical differences

One thing I’m learning, as I sing with other people in the UK, is the extent of the cross-Pond difference in well-known music. And I don’t mean only patriotic songs about the two countries, as with Hubert Parry’s hymn “Jeruslem” (a setting of William Blake’s poem “And did those feet in ancient time” — the source of the phrase “England’s green and pleasant land”, which I first heard in Ian Anderson’s 1983 song “Made in England”). I refer to hymns in general as well as anthems and Christmas carols.

For example, in rehearsing for last weekend’s Cappella Novocastriensis concert I was astounded to hear described as “the two best known pieces in the concert” the only two that not only had I neither heard nor heard of, but whose composers I had never heard of either. Never mind that one of those composers wrote “Jerusalem”; I had never paid any attention to who the composer was. But it does explain the similarity in cheesiness; Parry’s “My soul, there is a country” is the only song we did that I just plain dislike. But I have never had any patience for schlock.

And then there are Christmas carols. One aspect is the melodies; for example, the two cultures sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” to different tunes. (The US one is, I submit, more tranquil and therefore more appropriate to the words; the British one is more upbeat, and I find it kind of jarring.) The other aspect is the carols themselves. As Cappella prepares for this year’s Advent concert, I find that we are doing two carols that everyone knows but me — and I’ve never even heard them before.

So this, too, is a learning experience. I think I’ll add a “Music” page to my Living section. Eventually.

A week of singing

Last week I took my first vacation from uni that didn’t involve visiting other people.

I left on Saturday the 6th to attend the Tallis Scholars Summer Schools UK course, and spent a week singing the music of my heart. This course is held each year in the East Midlands of the UK — formerly in the small town of Oakham, and for the last two years in the even smaller town of Uppingham. It takes place in the Uppingham School, a very posh school for boys and girls aged 13 to 18. We stayed in a girls’ dorm (or “boarding house”) and except for one dinner were fed every meal on site. As a full choir we rehearsed in the chapel. We had several configurations of small groups, including “tutor groups” assigned by the three tutors and “small groups” that were more or less self formed according to the music we wanted to sing.

What I did not expect was that each day would last from breakfast at 8am through the end of Compline at 10pm. (I did not, in fact, know that we would be doing Compline.)

I had done a little work on the main music in advance, including my usual process of importing MIDI files (gotta love CPDL!) into the Finale application and setting the different voices to different instruments to enable me to hear my part in context. I hadn’t spent a lot of time looking at the sheet music before the week started, but I had listened to the computer files enough that everything sounded familiar — and believe me, that helped a lot with reading the music when the time came.

The small groups work involved music I hadn’t seen before — so I was signt reading — and I am delighted to report that for the most part it went VERY well! Really, I had trouble with only one piece, and that was because I was singing tenor in a song whose alto part I already knew very well. So my impression that I now read early music fairly well was borne out! (That doesn’t mean I’d be able to read Fayrfax or Dunstable easily, but the stuff with familiar, common rhythms and patterns has begun to sink in.)

There were other things I didn’t know in advance, an important one of which is that we are encouraged to bring music to share in the small groups. Next time I go (next year, if I can afford it), I am hoping to take Dufay’s Vasilissa, ergo gaude. (The edition that my former group sang differs slightly from any that I have found recorded on line, so I am not posting a link here.) If not, I will take another Dufay or two. Maybe I’ll even try transposing his Gloria (the most beautiful piece of music ever written, IMO) for women’s voices and see how that works. (I get choked up every time I hear it, so I’m not sure I could sing it, but it’s so gorgeous it has to be worth a try.) I’ve just done some searching online and have not found a recorded version of it, although CPDL’s sheet music appears to be the right version.

On Wednesday we took a field trip to Tewkesbury Abbey, where we attended a concert of the Tallis Scholars. Apparently this is another regular feature of the summer school program. It was nice to have the day “off” from the intense learning-and-rehearsing schedule. I also enjoyed visiting another of the great churches of England.

I could go on and on, but it’s getting late and I’m getting tired, and I have a paper to revise, a presentation to begin, and a CHI paper to begin. So I’ll end here. Except to say that my photos are here:

Music in Newcastle’s Cathedral

Tonight I went to the Northumbria University Carol Service at the Cathedral Church of St. Nicholas, in Newcastle. There was much pageantry (gotta love England!) and much carol singing, all very nice at Christmastime. We sang Silent Night, O Little Town of Bethlehem (to a tune other than the one I grew up with, but one I know), We Three Kings (much too fast), and Hark the Herald Angels Sing. I have long thought that when I sing I use a vaguely English accent (not a Geordie one, though, haha), but I’m sure that my pronunciation of “deity” gave me away this evening. (The Brits say “day-i-tee” and Americans say “dee-i-tee”.)

They served refreshments afterward, including wine — which would never, ever have happened in the Methodist tradition in which I was raised.

As I was leaving, I met Andii Bowsher, the man who led most of the service. Andii is the Coordinating Chaplain of the university, and when I told him what my research is about, he expressed great excitement. He promised to help me find people of many faiths to interview, once I reach that point in my project.

When I was writing this blog post, I went to the cathedral’s website and discovered that Jethro Tull is playing a charity concert there THIS FRIDAY NIGHT! I have to go. Even though I have to get up early for a 10am rehearsal in Whitley Bay for a wedding at which Cappella is singing. Not only do I have to get up early and get out to Whitley Bay, I have to pack for an overnight trip to York to see the Tallis Scholars on Saturday night.

Jethro Tull on Friday night and the Tallis Scholars on Saturday night. I love this place.

(It’ll be interesting to see whether and how much Ian Anderson tones down the “dirty old man” persona that he usually plays up in concerts.)

There may be music

One reason I was so reluctant to give up the idea of living in London was the abundance of early music there and the apparent dearth of it in Newcastle. For the last five years I’ve sung with a Renaissance a cappella group (Collegium Cantorum), and it has been the most meaningful and rewarding thing I have done outside of work. So I have, naturally, been hoping to find a similar group in the UK. Being confident I could find something in London I didn’t spend any time researching that, but I did do some googling to see what I could find in or near Newcastle. There is a Newcastle Early Music Festival, but for some reason that I cannot fathom they seem to consider Baroque to be early music, and the festival is full of Bach. Now, I like Bach as much as most people, but he wasn’t even born until about a quarter-century after what I think of as the end of early music*. So phooey on that.

However, I have a potential lead. Yesterday I sent an email to Peter Phillips, director of the Tallis Scholars, to ask if he could point me to some resources in Newcastle. Peter also conducts the chorus in the Rimini International Choral Workshop, which occurs every August and in which I participated last year. He replied that a great friend of his at Newcastle University sings in some of the local groups and is going to write to me. So there may be hope — keep your fingers crossed!

I’d be willing to go to Durham or even York for rehearsals.


*Some people do consider Baroque to be within the span of early music (see the Collins definition). But I prefer Cambridge’s take on it: “Western music of the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, written before about 1600”. (They have it ending about 50 years before I would. Interesting.)